When the Los Angeles Rams decided to make Florida State running back Cam Akers the first selection of their 2020 draft class many wondered what on Earth that meant for the second-year running back the team had just selected in the third round of last year’s draft, Darrell Henderson. Furthermore, what could that mean for former sixth-round pick John Kelly and recently-signed Malcolm Brown?
Cam Akers is going to be the guy in Los Angeles but if you think that the Rams are going to toss out Henderson out like a month old newspaper? Well, you might not realize the type of talent he is and what the Rams can ultimately do with both of them. Akers’ speed, power, and ability to maintain his balance is going to allow him to be a stereotypical 2020 bell-cow running back if the Rams want him to be that. However, Henderson’s speed, his slipperiness, his vision and agility are going to allow last year’s third-round rookie back a chance to be very lethal in today’s league. The veteran former 2015 undrafted rookie running back Brown could easily find his way into the starting lineup and never let go of it this season but we are talking beyond. What does this duo of Akers and Henderson mean for the future of the Rams? How good could they be? Has there ever been anything like them before? We will start trying to answer all of these questions.
First off, what does this duo of Akers and Henderson mean for the future of the Rams? It’s important to start off by saying Todd Gurley was in fact the engine of the Rams offense in the 2015, 2017 and 2018 seasons. The only two years of his career where he was not and his play faltered, were also the two years the Rams were very disappointing. In 2016, the Rams fell from slightly above-average to becoming one of the league’s worst teams. In 2019, Gurley’s knee issues coupled with his lack of explosiveness and consistency ended up stifling the Rams offense and mainly quarterback Jared Goff who relied heavily on Gurley in the passing game to open up the rest of the field. Now, fast forward to 2020 and the Rams have added Akers to pair with Henderson who will be able to help out as running backs in both the running game and catching passes out of the backfield. When you watch Henderson sometimes you can see Jamaal Charles in his game while other times you see former Rams back Tre Mason. When I watch Akers I see a few backs but one, in particular, Marshall Faulk. Specifically, Akers’ ability in the open-field slightly resembles Faulk in his prime being able to move all over the place in an attempt to juke tacklers out. One should expect these two dynamic runners to bring great success to the Rams offense and help keep Goff on that same path to success by having running backs he can count on.
Secondly, how good can they be? It’s a fair question. I would make the argument that Akers could have been the number one running back selected in the draft if he didn’t play behind such a terrible offensive line. He still averaged more yards after contact than any of the top running backs and ultimately proved he can succeed behind any offensive line. The trajectory for Akers in my honest opinion is future Pro Bowler. Can he be better than Gurley? That’s probably a stretch but never say never when you have a player with all the gifts he has. As for Henderson, there’s no reason why his ceiling shouldn’t be considered that of a Pro Bowl-caliber player as well. Henderson ran for over eight yards-per-carry in college and has what you look for in a true home-run hitting running back. Combining the two? You are looking at a pretty formidable backfield.
Lastly, has their been anything like them before? This is a tricky question because we only have college tape and stats to go off of in regards to Akers and 43 total touches in accordance with Henderson. So, how do we answer this question? By using projections, but how do we use projections? We create them, using stats, tape, and of course measurements. There are running back duos throughout history that were great, you have guys like Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris, LaDainian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles, Walter Payton and Roland Harper, Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew, Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley, Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett and then you have Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor. One dual backfield combination I left out is the one that feels most similar to Henderson and Akers — DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.
How do Williams and Stewart compare to Akers and Henderson? DeAngelo Williams was the speed and shiftiness of the duo, he had the agility and the home-run hitting ability needed to start in the league. Jonathan Stewart was the complete looking back that had the speed, balance, power and the ability to do-it-all. In this aspect, Henderson compares more to Williams while Akers compares to Stewart. Both of those running backs had 1,000-plus yards in the same season which could possibly be done by the Rams dual backfield but the best part is that it wouldn’t be needed due to the firepower already residing on the roster. Henderson is 5-foot-8 and 208 pounds while Williams stands at just 5-foot-9 and 207 pounds. Looking over at Akers he stands at 5-foot-10 and weighs 217 pounds while Stewart stands at 5-foot-10 but weighs a bit more at 240 pounds. It’s not a carbon copy print but the two stables of backs are similar and they play very similar as well.
What did Williams and Stewart do? The two played a combined 19 seasons with the Carolina Panthers. The two were drafted two years apart both in the first round and were forced to play with each other instead of competing for a starting spot. Williams ran 1,432 times for 6,846 yards and 46 rushing touchdowns for Carolina. While Stewart in one more year ran 1,699 times, 7,318 yards and 51 rushing touchdowns. Williams was likely the better back as far as consistency and his yards-per-carry does edge out Stewart’s but both of these running backs battled injury. Williams missed 27 games while playing with the Panthers and Stewart missed 25 games while playing with the Panthers. Henderson already has three missed games to his resume due to last year’s disappointing rookie year. The key for these guys will be to stay healthy. Obviously, you see the stats which are very impressive for how evenly split the carries were, the Rams could definitely model their careers after those two or who knows, one could end up overtaking the other and forcing the other out via trade. We’ve seen it all happen when it comes to running backs which includes releasing a 25-year-old former Offensive Player of the Year superstar running back and getting nothing in return for him.
In 2008, Stewart’s rookie year he accumulated 836 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns while in that same year on that same team Williams racked up 1,117 yards and seven rushing touchdowns to go with his 252 yards receiving. That season right there is one you need to keep in mind when watching these two Rams running backs for the next few years. Henderson and Akers are both capable of eclipsing 1,000 yards and they both are going to offer something in the receiving game. With that being said, the Rams have invested serious draft capital over the last few years in the offensive line and they will be ready to answer the bell when called upon in the upcoming years. That means with an ample offensive attack, scheme, and ideology, Akers and Henderson can truly find the success Stewart and Williams had in Carolina.
It’s important to clearly state that this is no guarantee of course and we still have yet to see Akers run the ball for the Rams. However, as far as a unique comparison, the whole Akers and Henderson-to-Williams and Stewart comparison definitely checks out. There’s no reason why they cannot be even better if they stay healthy and things go the way that many expect them to. It’s also important to remind yourself that Akers isn’t multiple weight classes ahead of Henderson either. Both of them were top running backs in their respective draft classes and that shouldn’t be forgotten. Of course, the other argument for why Akers would be much more equipped for the NFL game than Henderson is based on size but as we’ve seen, top running backs can come in all shapes and sizes. We watched the Los Angeles Chargers choose small pass-catching running back Austin Ekeler over their first-round big all-around back in Melvin Gordon. We’ve seen the emergence of smaller running backs but if you are counting out Henderson because of his stature it’s important to realize his size is nearly identical to the greatest running back of all time, Barry Sanders. Once again, size isn’t everything for a running back and these two could be special if given a chance.
Now with Gurley out it’s going to be interesting how much the Rams run the football. You could always argue in the past that Sean McVay got sucked into limiting Gurley so much that he honestly neglected running the football because of it. Now, things should open up and that’s not to say that Gurley wasn’t a star or that the Rams indeed made the right move. We won’t know if they made the right move until we see it play out. One thing’s for sure if these two Rams young guns are able to stay relatively healthy, watch out.